The future of manufacturing

Afonso Fleury, Mike Gregory, David Bennett

Research output: Contribution to journalEditorialpeer-review


Anyone who looks at the title of this special issue will agree that the intent behind the preparation of this volume was ambitious: to predict and discuss “The Future of Manufacturing”.
Will manufacturing be important in the future? Even though some sceptics might say not, and put on the table some old familiar arguments, we would strongly disagree. To bring subsidies for the argument we issued the call-for-papers for this special issue of Journal of Manufacturing Technology Management, fully aware of the size of the challenge in our hands. But we strongly believed that the enterprise would be worthwhile.
The point of departure is the ongoing debate concerning the meaning and content of manufacturing. The easily visualised internal activity of using tangible resources to make physical products in factories is no longer a viable way to characterise manufacturing. It is now a more loosely defined concept concerning the organisation and management of open, interdependent, systems for delivering goods and services, tangible and intangible, to diverse types of markets.
Interestingly, Wickham Skinner is the most cited author in this special issue of JMTM. He provides the departure point of several articles because his vision and insights have guided and inspired researchers in production and operations management from the late 1960s until today.
However, the picture that we draw after looking at the contributions in this special issue is intrinsically distinct, much more dynamic, and complex. Seven articles address the following research themes: patterns of organisation, where the boundaries of firms become blurred and the role of the firm in the production system as well as that of manufacturing within the firm become contingent; approaches to strategic decision-making in markets characterised by turbulence and weak signals at the customer interface; challenges in strategic and operational decisions due to changes in the profile of the workforce; global players, especially China, modifying the manufacturing landscape; and techniques, methods and tools that are being made feasible through progress in new technological domains.
Of course, many other important dimensions could be studied, but these themes are representative of current changes and future challenges.
Three articles look at the first theme: organisational evolution of production and operations in firms and networks.
Karlsson's and Skold's article represent one further step in their efforts to characterise “the extraprise”. In the article, they advance the construction of a new framework, based on “the network perspective” by defining the formal elements which compose it and exploring the meaning of different types of relationships. The way in which “actors, resources and activities” are conceptualised extends the existing boundaries of analytical thinking in operations management and open new avenues for research, teaching and practice. The higher level of abstraction, an intrinsic feature of the framework, is associated to the increasing degree of complexity that characterises decisions related to strategy and implementation in the manufacturing and operations area, a feature that is expected to become more and more pervasive as time proceeds.
Riis, Johansen, Englyst and Sorensen have also based their article on their previous work, which in this case is on “the interactive firm”. They advance new propositions on strategic roles of manufacturing and discuss why the configuration of strategic manufacturing roles, at the level of the network, will become a key issue and how the indirect strategic roles of manufacturing will become increasingly important. Additionally, by considering that value chains will become value webs, they predict that shifts in strategic manufacturing roles will look like a sequence of moves similar to a game of chess.
Then, lastly under the first theme, Fleury and Fleury develop a conceptual framework for the study of production systems in general derived from field research in the telecommunications industry, here considered a prototype of the coming information society and knowledge economy. They propose a new typology of firms which, on certain dimensions, complements the propositions found in the other two articles. Their telecoms-based framework (TbF) comprises six types of companies characterised by distinct profiles of organisational competences, which interact according to specific patterns of relationships, thus creating distinct configurations of production networks.
The second theme is addressed by Kyläheiko and SandstroÍm in their article “Strategic options based framework for management of dynamic capabilities in manufacturing firms”. They propose a new approach to strategic decision-making in markets characterised by turbulence and weak signals at the customer interface. Their framework for a manufacturing firm in the digital age leads to active asset selection (strategic investments in both tangible and intangible assets) and efficient orchestrating of the global value net in “thin” intangible asset markets. The framework consists of five steps based on Porter's five-forces model, the resources-based view, complemented by means of the concepts of strategic options and related flexibility issues.
Thun, GroÍssler and Miczka's contribution to the third theme brings the human dimension to the debate regarding the future of manufacturing. Their article focuses on the challenges brought to management by the ageing of workers in Germany but, in the arguments that are raised, the future challenges associated to workers and work organisation in every production system become visible and relevant. An interesting point in the approach adopted by the authors is that not only the factual problems and solutions are taken into account but the perception of the managers is brought into the picture.
China cannot be absent in the discussion of the future of manufacturing. Therefore, within the fourth theme, Vaidya, Bennett and Liu provide the evidence of the gradual improvement of Chinese companies in the medium and high-tech sectors, by using the revealed comparative advantage (RCA) analysis. The Chinese evolution is shown to be based on capabilities developed through combining international technology transfer and indigenous learning. The main implication for the Western companies is the need to take account of the accelerated rhythm of capability development in China. For other developing countries China's case provides lessons of great importance.
Finally, under the fifth theme, Kuehnle's article: “Post mass production paradigm (PMPP) trajectories” provides a futuristic scenario of what is already around us and might become prevalent in the future. It takes a very intensive look at a whole set of dimensions that are affecting manufacturing now, and will influence manufacturing in the future, ranging from the application of ICT to the need for social transparency.
In summary, this special issue of JMTM presents a brief, but undisputable, demonstration of the possible richness of manufacturing in the future. Indeed, we could even say that manufacturing has no future if we only stick to the past perspectives.
Embracing the new is not easy. The new configurations of production systems, the distributed and complementary roles to be performed by distinct types of companies in diversified networked structures, leveraged by the new emergent technologies and associated the new challenges for managing people, are all themes that are carriers of the future.
The Guest Editors of this special issue on the future of manufacturing are strongly convinced that their undertaking has been worthwhile.
Original languageEnglish
JournalJournal of Manufacturing Technology Management
Issue number8
Publication statusPublished - 2007

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